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How to Solve the Global Water Crisis

The Real Challenges Are Not Technical, but Political

Sand blows across a normally submerged area at Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, January 2018.  Mike Hutchings / REUTERS

Few people would argue with the idea that the world has a serious problem with water. For the past several years, water has consistently been named as a leading risk in the World Economic Forum’s annual survey of global leaders, and newspapers worldwide are awash with stories warning of a water crisis. But a funny thing happens between the headlines: surprisingly little. Even in the case of Cape Town, which earlier this year proclaimed a water supply crisis that experts believed could literally cause taps to run dry, city officials blithely announced earlier this month that no emergency was imminent after all. So, is the world really facing a water crisis? The answer is yes—but not in the way most people think. The truth is, most of the world’s water woes can be solved with enough money and willpower. The real challenges are not technical or hydrological but political and ethical. The world’s water crisis, as it turns out, is really more of an existential one. But it’s one that poses plenty of real-world foreign policy challenges.   

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Broadly speaking, the world faces three separate water-related challenges that have each gotten much worse in recent decades. First, the world’s fresh water is very unevenly distributed, meaning that cities and farms often have to invest enormous resources in bringing it to where it’s needed. Because the world’s population is both growing and increasingly clustered in cities, it’s becoming more and more challenging to find enough water to grow more crops and at the same time fill more washbasins. This challenge is responsible for the overexploitation of many major rivers and ground-water aquifers worldwide.

Second, the hydrological cycle is fickle and often delivers either too much water, causing flooding, or too little, resulting in drought. While this pattern of flooding and drought is a perennial struggle for humanity, it has become more frequent and intense because of climate change, which is shifting both

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